At one level, Arctic Summer is an exercise in literary detection. Damon Galgut, a South African writer with two Man Booker-shortlisted novels under his belt, trawls through EM Forster's diaries, letters and novels for clues to piece together the story of why it took him 11 years to write A Passage to India. Forster began the novel, now considered a classic, in 1913, soon after he returned from his first trip to India, but lost momentum. He could only return to it nine years later after he'd been to the country again and lived there for a year working as private secretary to the maharaja of Dewas. A Passage to India was published in 1924.
At another level, Arctic Summer is an imaginative reconstruction of Forster's repressed sexual life, of how he learnt to live with his homosexuality at a time when being gay was not just frowned upon socially but also illegal.
The fact that Forster is a homosexual is well known — he had 'outed' himself to his friends during his lifetime, and had a 40-year relationship with a married policeman called Bob Buckingham. He'd even written a novel about a love affair between two men, Maurice, which was published after he died in 1970. In 2010, EM Forster: A New Life, by American scholar Wendy Moffat covered much the same ground as Galgut does here. Some scholars have even put forward a theory of 'libidinous exchange' to explain why Forster, after writing five, well-received novels between the ages of 26 and 41, abjured fiction in the last three decades of his life. Their implication is that he suffered a loss of literary abilities even as he became more confident of his sexuality.
Sexuality is, of course, not just about the act of sex. It is as much a state of mind connected with self-esteem, of how a man regards himself, and his body in connection with those he finds attractive. In Arctic Summer, Galgut's thesis is that the writing of A Passage to India was shaped by the ups and downs of Forster's friendship with Syed Masood Ross. Indeed, Forster's views on India, on British colonialist attitudes and whether it was possible for a Britisher and an Indian to be friends — the central concern of his novel — was shaped by his love for Masood. "His relationship with India was his relationship with Masood; it was difficult to separate one love from another."
Forster had known Masood, grandson of Aligarh Muslim University founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, since 1906 when he'd begun giving Latin tuitions to the latter for his Oxford entrance exams. For Forster, Masood was the quintessential Oriental — "tall and broad and strikingly handsome" with a "smiling face", "luxuriant moustache" and "sad brown eyes" — and the attraction was immediate. They became 'friends' though on Forster's side it was more infatuation. As for Masood, he seemed to more than return Forster's affection but didn't seem to understand — or perhaps sidestepped? — the inchoate hints that Forster gave of taking the relationship forward. That's where their relationship was poised when Forster came to India.
Forster clearly came expecting the friendship to take a physical turn as he and Masood toured the country together. But the Masood he met in India was a different man; he seemed "preoccupied" and "morose", almost as if he was "fobbing him off". One night, towards the end of his stay with Masood in Bankipore (most likely the city on which he based Chandrapur of A Passage to India), he tried to force the issue, going up to the latter's bedroom and attempting to kiss him — only to be pushed away firmly, sharply. Forster was devastated and shamed.
It was in this state of mind, Galgut imagines, that Forster went up to the Barabar caves, the Marabar caves of the novel where Adela Quested experienced something that she later alleged was a sexual assault by Dr Aziz. That incident was clearly drawn from something that Forster himself experienced in the caves — a sense of claustrophobia, of something unpleasantly primordial that disturbed him and magnified his hurt at Masood's rejection.
It's a feasible back story, though somewhat sentimental and hard to relate to a writer who was a master of the ironic aphorism, a man who wrote, "When I think of what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love; it is one of the moments for which the world was made" (A Room With a View). Nevertheless, it will forever change the way you read A Passage to India.